FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In the latter part of what is now last year, three women died, all of them in their nineties. Two were well-known mystery writers, the third was married to one of the best-known mystery writers of all time. Her name had been Rose Koppel, and she had been widowed for less than a year when she was invited to attend a New Year’s Eve party in Larchmont, New York and introduced to the only unattached man at the gathering, a man in his late sixties named Frederic Dannay whose spouse had also died recently.
Something clicked between them and they began dating immediately. It was only somewhat later in their courtship that he told her that he was better known under the pen name of Ellery Queen. They were married in November 1975 at New York’s Plaza Hotel, although the marriage almost had to be postponed when the rabbi scheduled to perform the ceremony suddenly died of a heart attack.
It’s not going too far to say that Rose saved Fred’s life. Fred and his cousin and collaborator Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971) had been fabulously successful writing as and about Ellery Queen, but Fred’s life had been far from a happy one. In 1940 he had been driving to Long Island to visit his mother when a car without lights and driven by a drunk, who turned out to be an AWOL serviceman without a license or insurance, hit his Buick head-on, leaving it unrecognizable.
Fred had been so seriously injured that Walter Winchell on his national news program actually announced him as dead, and he had to spent months in the hospital recovering. That was a picnic compared to what happened next. In 1945 Fred’s first wife died of cancer, leaving him with two small children to raise. He married again a few years later and he and his second wife had a son who was born with brain damage and died at age six. In the early 1970s that wife also died of cancer. Fred began dating a woman he had known for a long time, and she too was diagnosed with cancer.
Look at the photograph of him, taken around this time, that you’ll find on page 162 of my book Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection. Doesn’t he look like a character created by Cornell Woolrich, like a man without hope, waiting for the merciful release of death? Is it any wonder that when he and Rose met she found him so depressing and humorless? “I had never imagined such devastating loneliness,” she said. That is what Rose saved him from. Their marriage endured until his death, over the Labor Day weekend of 1982, at age 76.
After they were married Fred and Rose seemed to be always together, and it was a rare occasion when I saw him without her at his side. She had been living in an apartment on 72nd Street in New York City since the early 1950s and insisted on keeping it after marrying Fred, a wise decision since it gave them a place to stay when they came into town for dinner or an MWA function or a show.
She returned there after Fred’s death. On December 6 of 2014 she joined him. “Her death was quick and as painless as possible,” her daughter told me, “and my brother was there when she died… I was so lucky to have had a mother who could still recognize me and communicate with me and tell me she loved me every time we talked on the phone or saw each other.”
Her memories of Fred did not die with her. Her account of My Life with a Man of Mystery (2010) includes a great deal of fascinating material on their meeting and courtship, their married life, their trips to California and Japan and Israel and Sweden, and his last days and death.
I was there for a few of the events she describes, like the banquet at New York’s Lotos Club celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Ellery Queen novel (The Roman Hat Mystery; 1929), and the occasion when Fred was awarded an honorary Ph.D., but for many of them her account is the only one we’re going to have.
Clearly she misunderstood or misremembered a few things Fred told her, giving his best-known mystery anthology the title 101 Years of Entertainment, conflating a landmark EQMM story set in the black ghetto (Hughes Allison’s “Corollary,” July 1948) with another landmark story about all but openly gay characters (Philip MacDonald’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” November 1950) and telling us that the tale was published in 1943.
But to most of what she describes Rose was a witness, and no one who loves Ellery Queen will want to miss her testimony. Her book doesn’t seem to be available on Amazon.com, but anyone interested in purchasing a copy should get in touch with Rose’s daughter, Dale Koppel. I’d prefer not to post her email address here, but leave a comment or contact Steve directly, and he’ll send it on to you.
Of the two women mystery writers whose deaths occurred in the second half of last year, the one who died more recently was P.D. James, to whom I said goodbye in my December column. I didn’t find out until too late for that column that another of the great women of the genre, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, had died back in August at age 97.
I didn’t know Dorothy well but had read her novels and stories with great pleasure, and both of us were among the speakers at the centenary symposium honoring the births of Fred Dannay and Manny Lee that was held at Columbia University in 2005. The last time I saw her was on a boat in the Hudson River, the site of an elegant MWA cocktail party which, in her late eighties or early nineties, she had driven from her home in Sneden’s Landing on the Palisades to attend. She and I and Ed Hoch and his wife sat together.
Her most successful and perhaps finest novel was her third, A Gentle Murderer (1951). Late in life she told an interviewer that the idea for the book came to her when she noticed a man on the New York subway:
“He had the look about him of St. Francis in dungarees. He had a package and it looked the shape of a hammer and I thought, ‘He could kill with that.’… I saw him get off the subway and I followed him. I saw him go into a large church called St. John of the Cross, around 56th Street and 8th Avenue.”
A few months later A Gentle Murderer was finished. Interspersed with her novels were 20-odd short stories, most of them first published in EQMM and collected in Tales for a Stormy Night (1984). Apparently her last work of fiction was the 2007 short story “Dies Irae.”
She had had to move to an assisted living facility about three years before her death but even after falling and breaking her hip she seemed to be doing reasonably well considering that she wasn’t that far from her own centenary.
The lights go out, the lives go out. A new year begins. How many more?